It is a crowded Thursday night at the Art Institute of Chicago. One tour group after another strolls through the impressionism and post-impressionism galleries, hopping from Monet to Manet and making the obligatory long stop at the “Grand Jatte” island.
Sarah Dunnavant’s group is among them, too, but not really. The painting they’re looking at is something entirely different both from the impressionists and the other paintings of its time.
“In the Sea,” by the Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin, depicts a husky, harp-playing male figure in shallow water. The male and female figures around him seem to listen, while a few mermaids grab at him in a manner that is frankly sensual.
The scene, Dunnavant says, depicts “the hottest rock concert of 1883.” It is an odd and arresting image, yet one that is easily overlooked amid the works of art superstars surrounding it. “This guy’s Kurt Cobain,” she says.
This moment followed others in which her group was asked to recall their favorite childhood snack and, in one Renaissance-era gallery, to use one of the other paintings to come up with a story for why the lead character in Abraham Janssens’ “Jupiter Rebuked by Venus” looks so dour.
Hers is not the typical tour, but the half-dozen participants can’t say they weren’t warned. “If you are expecting to sit in front of the great masters and stroke your chin while we talk about brush strokes, this is not your tour,” Dunnavant had said earlier.
And the organizer, the outfit Dunnavant works for, is called Museum Hack, which aims not to break the code of the art museum so much as create its own set of rules for attending.
Founded in New York in 2012 in a manner not unlike Craigslist, Museum Hack has been in Chicago since September, offering twice-weekly public tours of the Art Institute, plus corporate events.
The idea, says founder Nick Gray, is not to disrespect the treasures of the nation’s great museums — they are also in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — but to show them in a new light.
^^ click to read, it gets better + plot twists ^^